Food, glorious food!
There’s a lot of eating in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. The last third of the novel is an orgy of meals—long, expensive meals. And there are quite a few before then, too.
Fancy meals. Meals in expensive New York City restaurants. One in Welsey’s private penthouse on Park Avenue. And several pot lucks in small-town Callicoon.
Perhaps not a novel to read if you’re on a diet.
EWS is about conversation and social interaction. And in our culture, and most others, conversation and social interaction center around eating and drinking. Especially eating.
Eating says a lot about who we are. It’s one of the best ways a writer can define character, geography and social status.
I thought of this the other day after coming across a discussion of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in the context of its many feasts. Food plays a major role in that novel, and not just as background. Flaubert’s characters are frequently eating, and the way they eat reveals their characters. Charles’s bad table manners demonstrate his lowly class, something that repulses Emma. But Emma herself sucks her fingers and licks the bottom of a glass, betraying her pretensions of sophistication and her more base side. And when Emma goes to the ball, the table manners of the nobles and the expensive foods in the scene signify their sophistication.
But aside from social refinement, food manifests class. The types of food, of course, signify this, but the fact that, say, Rouault sends Charles a turkey every year defines his character. For the lower class, food is a form of love, as it could be argued, it is in Entertaining Welsey Shaw for Anne, who is constantly worried about how and what Joseph eats. She is constantly meddling in his nutrition, reading the labels on the frozen packages in his refrigerator. Joseph begins sneaking junk food the way a smoker sneaks cigs, tossing the wrappers in a neighbor’s can. With Welsey, he has fun eating. Although Welsey is an actress and has to worry about her weight and her appearance, she seems to be one of these women who truly can eat anything (or at least many things) and not worry too much about how it sticks to her. I hate these types—don’t you?
I searched the web extensively, planning elaborate meals, usually off the actual menus at the real restaurants, both named and unnamed in the novel, that the characters visit. Of course, I don’t know if these items were on the menus back in 2008. When I couldn’t completely visualize I went to online videos to contemplate appetizers such as Caviar and Crème Fraiche Buckwheat Cornets. Then I decided not to use them. I planned and replanned meals because, like Flaubert, I wanted to tell a story partly through food. (For reasons that probably only make sense to me, and even then only on alternate Tuesdays, I substituted savory cheese truffles with chives, pecans and goat cheese instead.)
Drinking, of course, goes with food, but there’s very little alcohol in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. There is, however, coffee, which is probably the most romantic non-alcoholic drink there is. True it’s prosaic coffee, consumed in a Starbucks, the most common place for coffee on earth, but that’s why I wanted most of the story to take place in a Starbucks: it’s the most ordinary place on earth, and here Joseph, our protagonist, encounters the world’s most elusive celebrity. There’s something extraordinary—and this is the idea that fascinated me from the first day and made me want to start writing this thing—about the idea of being able to talk to this incredibly famous person separated only by a very small round table. Two extremely different worlds that nearly, nearly touch.
But it’s as close as they’re likely to. The Internet is filled with pictures of celebrities going to Starbucks for their caffeine fix. Standing in line in one of their New York or LA stores may be the most likely way you’ll ever encounter a celebrity, though buried in their hoodies, wearing sunglasses or without their stage makeup, as with Welsey Shaw, you likely won’t recognize them. It’s amazing to me the hold Starbucks seems to have on the famous set, although perhaps we just get more photos of them coming out of that particularl coffee shop because it’s the most well-known and ubiquitous. Perhaps Robin Wright loves some small beanery in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood and Jonah Hill swears allegiance to an out-of-the-way spot in SoHo, but what we see in the media is countless celebs getting succor from the mermaid. Which is why I never considered setting Entertaining Welsey Shaw anywhere else.
One final aspect about all the eating in the novel. One of my favorite character-defining moments comes near the end: Joseph has actually gotten to see Welsey’s highly-private Manhattan penthouse apartment on Park Avenue. Towards evening she decides to order dinner from a fancy Italian restaurant. He, thinking he should, orders something elaborate; she gets the spaghetti and meatballs. As he sits cutting his veal and mushrooms, she slurps her pasta and gets tomato sauce all over her face. At that point he gets it: Welsey, robbed of her childhood, is having it now. That’s the key to understanding her. (They’ve also just spent the afternoon sitting on the floor playing the game of Life, with its little plastic cars and stick figure-people.) That’s one of my favorite moments in the whole novel, and food, glorious food plays a major role in defining it.
I know it’s a bit of a downer to post something like this fresh in the new year. We’re supposed to begin with optimism for better times. After all, isn’t that what New Years is all about? (Well, that and drinking.)
But something has me both deeply depressed and astonished, something that in better times would be a mock headline from that parody newspaper The Onion. But it’s quite real.
The U.S. government, which has been trying all sorts of programs for the past 20 years (“No child left behind!”) to get our kids smarter in lieu of simply sticking to a curriculum of hard-core education, is now pushing what it calls the Common Core Standards Initiative. So far 46 states and the District of Columbia have embraced this fiasco, which states, among other atrocities, that students now only spend thirty percent of their English reading time on literature such as Huckleberry Finn. —Oh, wait, Huck didn’t make the cut. He wasn’t deemed relevant.
So what do teachers have to teach the other 70 percent of the time? Non-fiction items such as instructional manuals and technical reports.
I’m not kidding. “Informational texts,” they call them, a term that should be swept up and thrown into the garbage by, hem, sanitation engineers. You kids who thought Madame Bovary was boring are in for a shock…
The architect behind this colossally-bad idea, David Coleman, said, and I quote, “Forgive me for saying this so bluntly. The only problem with a [personal narrative] writing is, as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” (Side note: And he thinks this is a good thing?) He and others like him maintain that non-fiction gives students the ability to digest and analyze complex information, the sort found in studies and reports. Literature doesn’t fill your noggin with useful knowledge. That’s why writers are never targeted as dangerous or subversive. When totalitarian regimes come to power, the first people they lock up are the ones who write manuals. They are also the leaders of social change, not Dickens and Orwell and Twain.
That could only have been said by someone who cut all his lit classes in high school and got someone else, probably some nerd with double his IQ, to write his papers.
Incidentally, counts as his supporters the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Participants get funding grants from Bill and Mel. Now, if you sell nails wouldn’t your solution to all of life’s problems be a nice, shiny new hammer? More hilariously, though, the man who couldn’t give us a stable computer platform is now going to tackle the U.S. educational system.
One of the things literature has taught me is how to recognize conflicts of interest, and, more broadly, how throughout human history, from Homer to Chaucer to EL James, people act in their own self-interest, while rationalizing that interest to the hilt. So forgive me when I make the observation that the B&M Gates Foundation has a personal financial stake in rewiring the curriculum to suit what it has to sell. The astonishing thing is so few of the media “watchdogs” out there have picked up on this. Or if they pretend to they quickly dismiss it with a quote from Mr. Coleman. “Frankly, I think there’s a disproportionate amount of anxiety,” he said recently. The new educational standard is backed by both the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. And while I don’t think he was asked, I’m sure Kim Jong-un would approve.
Some examples of the non-fiction on the list are Recommended Levels of Insulation by the the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Invasive Plant Inventory by California’s Invasive Plant Council and hypertext markup manuals. They’re not touting Tocqueville or Bernard Bailyn.
The thinking behind the Common Core Standards Initiative is that we’re living in an age of fast, fast, fast, baby! Tweets and Instagram rule now. Books full of words? You know, those things no one uses anymore when they can just type LOL and STFU and ;-).
If I had a nickel for how many times I’ve heard this age or this situation is new, that the old standards no longer apply. “We’re living in a different era,” Coleman said. I heard this when computers first spread into the classrooms in the 80s. I heard it during the first tech bubble of the 1990s. I heard it when Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 came into being. I heard it when the Dow hit 7,000 and again when it hit 10,000.
I can’t think of much that prepares students for critical thinking, as well as attention to detail, organizing thought and argument, and understanding different and opposing points of view, better than reading literature. The lessons of despotism, futility and intolerance in Shakespeare, Orwell, Twain and so so many others reveal these “educators” for the charlatans they are, for their either don’t see it too or they’re ignoring it, realizing the fraud they are perpetrating for some quick Microsoft bucks, and either way they should be flunked and expelled. George Orwell explained very clearly the benefits to writing—and thus reading—in his famous essay “Why I Write.”
Instead we’re being told reading “informational manuals” will teach us more about the world and our place in it than Richard Yates and Virginia Woolf. Never have I seen a generation in the pockets of the technocrats more than the current one, willing to eschew any intellectual or moral standards for a fast buck. Never have I seen administrators so uncritical of the solutions they’re sold. And what used to be a skeptical media has been demolished or bought off by this same technology—today anyone with a camera phone (which is to say anyone) can snap a picture and email it to a “news organization” and that person’s “report” will “go viral.” Who checks to see if that person understood what they photographed? Who follows up on the facts? Who is responsible? We used to call them “gate-keepers” with a certain negativity, but in my opinion we could sure use those gatekeepers now. The best of them had excellent critical thinking skills acquired through reading the great minds of the past, folks who’d been around the block before you and see maybe more than you had and had something to say, wisdom to impart.
For you younger readers, this is different from a mere blogger, who is anyone with an internet account (which is to say anyone).
If you’ve read your Fitzgerald, you’d understand that the claim “We’re living in a different era” is far from new—and you know how his era ended. If you read your Woolf, especially if you are female, you’d understand why it’s so special that today you can sit in the same classes as the boys and read the same books as they do and acquire the same knowledge they can, whereas a hundred years ago nobody wanted ideas in your pretty little heads. If you’ve read your Harold Frederic, you’d know the dangers of hubris and faux sophistication. Then you’d recognize that all of this is still very much with us, and always has been and always will be, and that we are definitely not living in times that are in any way different or new. In short, you’d be a lot harder to hoodwink, you’d see through shell-games easily, and you’d really have that marvel of marvels, an education instead of technical knowledge that allows you to excel in one area while remaining an overall ignorant member of the human race.
That’s one of the crucial qualities that distinguishes literature from entertainment—literature is skeptical. Literature asks questions and often finds answers that aren’t pretty but are true. I get the impression these technocrats think reading The Red Badge of Courage is no different than reading Sue Grafton, and that it’s dispensable, a luxury we can’t afford in this age of work work work. And defenders aren’t alerting them to the difference, either because it’s become gauche to point out that certain things have artistic or intellectual superiority to other things or because they themselves don’t get it. And the latter would not surprise me—the liberal arts tradition is generally not attracting the Best and the Brightest anymore.
When I watched members of the various “Occupy” movements last year, I was struck by the fact that they had some very legitimate and deeply-felt issues that they wanted addressed. What they lacked was the ability to clearly articulate them. They knew and know that something is wrong, and that the deck is stacked against them, but I could tell they couldn’t quite express or explain exactly how. They lacked the very analytics that literature—great literature, not Twilight—can provide. Literature contains allegory, analogy, comparison, irony, parody, ironic distance, and many other teaching techniques that roll off of today’s working people—even educated working people—like raindrops off a vinyl slicker.
Or, just to put it all in a sentiment short enough for a tweet: if literature weren’t of paramount importance, dictators wouldn’t make the censoring of it one of their first priorities when they take power.
See, that’s 136 characters, including spaces.